Not Alone

600x600bb-85Anita and I have been enjoying History Channel’s Alone series. Just finished Season 3 recently. Each season documents ten new pre-approved survivalists who are dropped off in remote locations and left to survive on their own. Seasons 1 and 2 were held on Vancouver Island. Season 3 was in Patagonia, Argentina. Each contestant is given a few essential tools to take along, but all have to eat, drink and survive alone. No human contact. They’re given video equipment to set up and record their thoughts and activities.

It’s very interesting to observe the gradual effects of solitude upon each contestant. The quiet breaks and whittles them down, brings them face to face with themselves. If you want to call it quits, you tap out by calling a Sat Phone and you’re extracted. As people tap out, 10 becomes 9, then 7, then 4, etc. If you’re the last one standing, you win half a mill. Season 1’s winner lasted 56 days. Season 2’s made it to 66 days. Season 3’s winner won on day 87. Amazing show. Check it out!

That said, my thoughts on being alone brought to me thoughts of the Cross. On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples (John 16.32-33):

A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

It’s just because Jesus says this before the awful events that end with him on the Cross that its truth gets separated from the Cross and altogether forgotten when you get to the Cross. But the truth Christ here affirms should be included in what we have traditionally considered Jesus’ “Final sayings from the Cross,” for Jesus himself insists that what he here says embraces his suffering to come and so will be true when he hangs on the Cross. Think about it. We should learn to hear Jesus say from the Cross not only “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” but also “I am not alone; my Father is with me.”

Earlier we offered:

Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.

Consider also –

Cursed is he who judged by us hangs on a tree
A cell made of diamonds?

Prepositional knowledge

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From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever!”    (Rom 11.36)

To hear God in Scripture is to see oneself (James 1). To see oneself truly is to see God – to see God speaking me into existence, painting me into being. To know oneself is to know the truth about oneself, and that means experiencing oneself as given. Acknowledgment of this is all we truly give back to the God who gives us life and being – to know ourselves within the absolute priority of God’s initiative, of God before all things, in all things, beyond all things, “from whom and through whom and to whom are all things.” We possess ourselves, the purpose, meaning and fullness of our existence, prepositionally. Can “I” be something over and above this? Can “I” possess a truth that exceeds these prepositions? No, the gift I am given to be is the gift I am given to see, and that is to see and know myself as the truth and beauty of being “from,” “through,” and “to” God.

Rorschach redemption

87241fc01b5a5f0a8aef2974cc9bb8feMy good friend Dwayne shared some of his spiritual journey with me. In describing how he used to view God in conversation with the Bible to how he now views God, he compared his reading of Scripture to Rorschach’s inkblot test. The metaphor struck me so deeply, I wanted to share it.

Rorschach was a Swiss psychologist who developed the inkblot test used to study a person’s psychological health and emotional functionality. It’s not an objective test (like a multiple test question). It’s a projective test. It asks a subject to respond to ambiguous stimuli (those weird inkblot images). The mind fills in the gaps and resolves the ambiguity on its own and thus reveals itself in its responses. What you see reflects as much your own state of mind as it does what’s on the card. I don’t know how much they use the test nowadays. I took it years ago. Got the job, so I guess I passed.

As Dwayne describes it:

When I first started doing theology as a profession in 1998, I was pretty much a double predestination Calvinist. I believed that God as Creator had the complete right to eternally predestine some to eternal heaven or eternal hell. I thought of it as simple property rights. If God made us for himself and he wants to play with us like toy soldiers, so be it. Who are we to tell the Creator of all what to do? If he wants some of us to be the winning side and others to be the losing side, so be it. It made total sense to me from the Scriptures.

But as I look back, more than anything I see that I looked at the Scriptures like a Rorschach Blot. I saw my own theological and emotional despair more than what the Scriptures actually say. Back then, I pretty much hated myself, and hated everyone else, why paradoxically being codependent as hell. What I’ve learned in my personal journey is that many times we see the Bible as we are, not as it is.

I like the analogy – a lot. I wouldn’t say the Bible is pure ambiguity (like one of Rorschach’s inkblots). It is sufficiently specific of course (specific people, era, culture, message). Nonetheless, it is a mirror that reveals the reader. We are the text being read. It’s a thought shared by at least some biblical authors themselves. James 1.23-25:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

I believe it was Barth who said something along the lines of ‘The Bible is not where we come to ask God our questions and have him provide the answers, but where God asks the questions and we must answer’. Scripture is where we come to be read by God, parsed by the Spirit, exegeted by the Logos. This is why though theology may be more than autobiography, it’s never less than autobiography. It’s also why, though “I” must read for myself, I must never read “alone.” We read the Scriptures together to call each other into being. This challenges me to examine my own reading. How does my reading of Scripture reveal my own sense of self, my fears, my angst and despair, my desires, etc.? Similarly, what do the readings of others say about them?

Not to books are we called,
Not to parchment, quill, and ink;
But to your flesh, voice, and blood,
Else deeper do we sink.
I read to be read by you,
That your Spirit me may parse;
Not for an errorless text,
Christlike persons are far more sparse.

Quick! Read this on slowing down!

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Please take the time to sit quietly with Andrew Sullivan’s recent article on sitting quietly. My family has been emailing our responses to each other. (Yes, I recognize the irony.) In addition, if you haven’t already seen Photographer Eric Pickersgill’s photographs on the isolation effect of cellphones, take time to check those out.

One of my sons-in-law emailed his first thoughts on Sullivan’s piece (which will make more sense if you’re read Sullivan’s article) which I’d like to share:

Thanks for sharing this. I’ve felt this way for years – just a vague fear of what social media and incessant connection is doing/will do to us. It’s why I postponed getting a smartphone for many years. And it’s why I quit Facebook a few years ago. Not to proselytize, but I’ve barely missed it at all.

Sullivan said:

“For if there is no dark night of the soul anymore that isn’t lit with the flicker of the screen, then there is no morning of hopefulness either.”

What I’ve found is that not only is it hard to find time away from the screens and little meaningless validations, but it’s increasingly hard to even want it – to want to spend some quiet time or to even ponder “enduring it.”

That’s dangerous.

I think you could put together a church/organization/group that basically takes all its direction and meaning from these thoughts from the article:

“The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn…If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation…It is the routine that gradually creates a space that lets your life breathe.”

Aren’t we all suffocating? I’ve found it’s virtually impossible to resist the urge to check notifications or texts or messages. But what isn’t impossible is turning off notifications (e.g., email while on vacation) or – better still – just ending my co-dependent, unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship with social media. I really don’t think it does anything positive for our lives. It’s just giving little dopamine boosts – just like a Percocet or a cigarette drag – and we find that we need more and more, we need it to go to sleep at night and get out of bed in the morning, that 11 “likes” aren’t enough anymore.

People say they can’t live without it. I think they’re almost right. I think they can’t live with it.

Nothing but nihil

skeleton-mirrorIf you’re unfamiliar with Dr. Alexei Nesteruk (Senior Lecturer, Department of Mathematics, University of Portsmouth, UK), I encourage you to explore his work. Start with his Light From the East. Here I’d like to share an interesting article of his (from 2005) that I’ve just run across this week. Given events in my own life the past month, this piece spoke deeply to me. Parts of the article connect with things I’ve tried to express about the Void, death, identity formation, meaning-making, and I’ll stop there. If it doesn’t connect with you the way it did with me, that’s fine. Its effect upon me had as much to do with where I am these days as with anything else. I tried to express my sense of discovering the meaning of life in the context of the Void here where I describe experiencing (as opposed to just believing in) “being spoken into being.” It comes up in Nesteruk.

There is a moment, a place, an experience of one’s own self, precipitated by suffering, loss, or the careful contemplation of one’s own mortality, that brings one into the truth of one’s utter contingency and absolute ontological poverty. James Loder calls it the Void. It’s depicted in the picture that accompanies this post. I spent quite some time trying to find an appropriate picture to represent this Void. Not easy. Every representation I considered portrayed the Void as outside one’s self, as a threat that is external to one’s existence. But the truth is that the Void is one’s self, an experience of one’s own existence. I don’t know how else to say it. If you’ve entered the black abyss there in the picture, you know. If you’re still under the delusion that your worth and value to God are something God perceives (as other than his own value expressed ad extra) and is attracted to and so dies on the Cross to affirm so you can achieve self-realization, in turn enriching and growing God’s own existence, then what I’m describing will all seem BS, because part of the Void is coming to see our gratuity and radical contingency in precisely this sense. You’ll just have to encounter what I’m talking about later; and you will. I’ll see you on the other side.

Nesteruk explores the Void in other terms in his piece “The Universe Transcended: God’s ‘Presence in Absence’ in Science and Theology” (2005). But whatever you call it, it has to be faced. Momento mori (“Remember to die”) so it is said. It is not evil, by the way, though relating to it falsely spawns all manner of evil. It is simply the truth of contingent finitude. We are loath to confront it. It is the death of everything in us other than the good God gives and invites us eternally toward. But that incomparable glory of being we crave is knowable by us only on the other side of the Void. Nesteruk nails its logic and description, and I highly recommend it. Here’s a portion:

In order to know about God, one’s mind should descend inside the hellish furnace of the Big Bang in order to realise all emptiness of impersonal being. Only then becoming aware about the Big Bang as merely a lure of the evil one, who wants to distract and detach our consciousness from the reality of it hypostatic incarnate existence, is it that human consciousness attempts to acquire back itself as existence in a concrete person. But having divested itself, i.e. cleansing itself from all sorts of contents about impersonal substance, hypostatic consciousness realises the whole scale of the paradoxical tragedy of its own existence: on the one hand, being incarnate consciousness, it exists in the context of substance of the world, but is not rooted in this substance; on the other hand it does not understand the foundations of its own facticity: it feels itself brought into being without knowing its reasons and motives. It is through this acute feeling of ontological loneliness and an incessant desire to enquire about the foundations of personal life, that some other channels of human communication with reality at large experience transformation so that the intentionality of repentance comes forth, and at this initial stage one can claim that faith in God is called out in a being by the power of God and his Spirit. In a way the very fact of awareness of the loss of personhood and the mystery of its own facticity comes from acquiring a sort of faith. To feel loneliness in the universe and abandonment by God one needs faith: “those who do not believe in God do not know the meaning of being abandoned by Him.”

And when a human being by the virtue of its fate is placed to contemplate the perspective of its finitude and finality, the perspective of its own dissolution and return into that substance from which it was born, at this very moment, man realises the scale of its own falleness and apostasy against God – that single and life-giving source which makes human life indeed the most valued thing in the universe. At this very moment a human being reduces itself to the zero of feeling alone and realising a tragic mode of existence of a person in a vast and hardly comprehensible universe without a link with God, in its own effective loneliness in being withdrawn from God, that God who is still present in his incomprehensible absence. This acute awareness of the mystery of life in personhood, which is devoid of any visible care from God and comprehension of its own facticity is described by Archimandrite Sophrony as “uncreated energy,” as the arrival of the Divine Light, and the entry of the Spirit of God into the heart of a person: “…through the repentance given to me – even up to the extend when I hated myself – I unexpectedly for myself experienced a wonderful world, and uncreated light surrounded me, permeated through me and transformed me into light, and was giving to me in the Kingdom of God of Love. The Kingdom to which ‘there will no be end’ (c.f. Matthew 18: 10-14).”

This entry of the Spirit acts also as the invocation through the repentant soul (so that the intentionality of the Spirit enters human cognitive life only through the ontological repentance in which the tragic place of hypostatic consciousness in the case of detachment from God is realised) of that God who is the real Father to all humanity and to the whole universe. Here the Spirit exercises its action in a human heart providentially: through the awareness of the tragic facticity of personal life and effective abandonment by God, the economy of the Spirit reveals itself tacitly by showing us God in the conditions when God withdraws from His phenomenality and is given to us through some mediated manifestations.

A moment of true vision, when man faces himself before the abyss of nothingness, when he perceives, through being providentially abandoned by God, all transitiveness of cosmological being, this moment one can compare with that grace, which is given to a man for the first time, which enters the reality of the human heart when one is reduced to zero and when one is open those flows of Divine energies which transform the human constitution and when God, being initially absent in human life, comes back into consciousness of a man in the form of ‘presence in absence’. Afterwards this ‘presence in absence’ becomes that stable phase in the human condition in which human freedom is subjected to a trial: freedom either to achieve the fullness of communion with God, or, alternatively, to reject God and to live blind life by being turned onto itself through following the cult of mere rationality. (bold emphases mine, all the quirky spelling is his!)

Suffering and the search for meaning—Part 2

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I don’t intend to respond to each of the seven theodicies Richard Rice surveys and which I briefly summarized in Part 1. There are, however, a couple of interesting points that Rice himself raises which I’d like comment on before I add an eighth approach to Rice’s seven.

As I emphasized this summer in reviewing existential arguments for (im)passibility (Parts 1-6), it’s difficult to evaluate how well particular beliefs help a person world-construct in healthy and transformative ways, particularly because what counts as ‘healthy’ is part of what is in dispute in existential arguments. At the same time, however, there’s no avoiding existential questions. Christianity is ultimately a life to be lived. As ubiquitous as evil and suffering are, it is precisely our living that throws us into the path of questions about the relationship between God’s goodness and providence (on the one hand) and evil and suffering (on the other). We are incurable meaning-makers who must integrate life’s experiences into a narrative that satisfies both heart and mind. Everybody has to sort this out for him/herself, of course, and Rice recognizes this.

We should distinguish between one of Rice’s seven theodicies and all the rest. The first approach he mentions (Perfect Plan Theodicy) maintains that all evil and suffering are unconditionally decreed by God. No other theodicy Rice lists takes this particular view of God’s relationship to evil, and for that reason I think we can draw our first distinction between Perfect Plan theodicies and every other theodicy that at least attempts to take creaturely freedom seriously. I respect the experience of those who find the Perfect Plan model meaningful and satisfying, but I don’t find it existentially viable on any level. There’s just no making sense of a God whose being is pure beatitude and holy delight exhaustively and unconditionally determining the evil and suffering of our world in the sense this theodicy maintains.

Of the other six approaches Rice describes, there are features I resonate with, so let me describe those features briefly.

First, there’s the integrity of the agency or ‘say-so’ God endows us with to determine ourselves in morally responsible ways. Whatever the extent to which one views created ‘say-so’ as having the power to realize evils not willed by God, it remains the case that created causes are real and do not collapse into mere occasions whose evil and suffering unfold in time the timeless will of God. This view of agency, or libertarian free will (not as the absolute unconstrained freedom to determine oneself without reference to transcendent goods and orientations), is an abiding feature throughout all the options Rice summarizes other than Perfect Plan theodicy.

Second, it was interesting to see Rice introduce the traditional understanding of evil as a privatio boni (privation of the good). Evil has no being or substance of its own but exists merely in a negative sense as a failure of what is to be all it was created to be. It is thus a diminished experience of the Good. It seems to me (as I’ve much argued the point on this blog) that the implications of this view of evil are vastly underappreciated, for once one admits evil as privation of the good, one admits a Supreme Good (viz., God) incapable of privation. And once this is admitted, it fundamentally guides and empowers meaning-making in a fallen and suffering world.

Burning Fiery FurnaceHowever we integrate our experiences of evil and suffering into a meaningful narrative that satisfies the mind and empowers our living for God, God cannot be viewed as willing evil or as willing his own privated forms of reflection within the world. Such willing would itself be privation. The essential point is that if there is privation of the good, there must be an undiminished and absolute Supreme Good. This has huge implications for meaning-making. Not only is evil not itself willed by God, but neither can the evil willed by us through our free choice manufacture within God or within our perfected forms (as contingent, embodied reflections of God) any sort of positive moment or contribution of beauty. Evil is in the strictest sense meaningless (or meaninglessness itself).

Interestingly, this understanding of God as the summum bonum becomes part of Rice’s argument against Protest theodicies (though it never takes center stage in his own understanding of how we meaning-make in the face of suffering). On what basis, Rice argues, does one ‘protest’ believing in the good in the face of horrendous evil if the conclusion of such protest is the eradication of the good needed to get the protest off the ground in the first place? Protest theodicies are self-contradictory because they seek to deny what their principled protest requires, namely, an undiminished and absolute Good to which the goodness of all things is related, from which all things derive their goodness, and by which all finite goods and claims are measured.

On a somewhat related note, I think the failure to understand the undiminished nature of the Good along concrete, existential lines is the fundamental mistake of all passibilisms. This has enormous implications for how we find meaning in suffering as well.

Lastly, I want to register my interest in soul-making approaches. While I don’t agree that actual evils contribute positively to God’s purposes, I do think there’s something worth affirming in the claim that we cannot become all God designs and calls us to be apart from certain challenges. I suggest that there’s no getting around having to world-construct (toward full, hypostatic-personal being) in the face of the truth about our createdness, and that truth includes our finitude as created ex nihilo, and in my view that means mortality. Apart from the experience of mortality we have no way to comprehend the truth of such radical finitude and contingency. Our fullest personal being is our truest being, and the truth of our being includes the truth of our being created ex nihilo. That ‘nothingness’ is the one truth we have to world-construct in light of if we’re going to live a meaningful life. So in our view mortality is a grace when seen as an embodiment of the truth of our finitude, a way to experience ourselves as created ex nihilo.

This is not to say misrelating to mortality in despairing ways (when ‘mortality’ becomes ‘death’ as viewed theologically) is necessary. One has only to embrace the truth of one’s existence as unconditionally given freely and ex nihilo. As much as we talk about creation ex nihilo, I think we forget to figure it into our understanding of the structure of human becoming and perfection. We talk about creation ex nihilo a lot. We experience it very little. So while I don’t affirm soul-making in the sense that I think who we finally become is positively shaped by evil or that we come to embody a goodness that is inconceivable apart from evil, I do think who we are meant by God to become cannot be embraced by us apart from our perceiving and embracing the truth of the nihil out of which God unconditionally called us into being. I’m happy to describe seeing and embracing that truth as a “soul making” moment. But I don’t see anything evil about finitude or mortality per se, though it can occasion suffering.

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In summary then, the key meaning-making resources I gather from the seven approaches Rice describes are as follows:

(1) The necessity of libertarian free will for human being. Properly understood, such exercise of the will is fundamental to our achieving God’s ends for us even if it is not the fullest expression of our freedom in Christ. However God is ultimately responsible for creating a world facing possibilities for both good and evil, he does not will evil and suffering as such, so the popular “there’s a purpose for everything that happens” isn’t a viable truth for meaning-making.

(2) Evil as privation. Understanding evil as privation of the good is inseparable from understanding God as the summum bonum (the Supreme Good) as well as inseparable from understanding the rational structure of aesthetic perception and volition as irrevocably oriented toward the Good. So if there isn’t a specific divine purpose for every evil that occurs, there nevertheless is divine purpose in or available to everything that occurs. Simply stated, no privation of evil can so diminish our lives that we become inseparable from God’s purposes. We may suffer evils God does not will, evil that does not lie within the scope of his purposes for us, but these evils cannot permanently foreclose on us all possibility of realizing our truest purpose and meaning. Again, this radically shapes how we perceive the meaning of our lives relative to suffering.

(3) Qualified soul-making. Soul-making approaches are right to emphasize that perfection is the end of human being, not its beginning. And the ends for which we are created have to be chosen, learned, and acquired. Human fulfillment is a creative achievement. Such choice requires a context in which we can responsibly choose in light of the truth of our finitude and the nothingness from which God calls us to be. Finitude must embrace the truth about itself, and that is a painful journey – though not necessarily an evil one.

To which I’d add:

(4) God’s undiminished beatitude as the summum bonum. A qualified sense of apatheia, or God’s undiminished beatitude as the summum bonum, is a fundamental truth for human meaning-making. Believing God’s triune beatitude is undiminished by evil and suffering provides a radically different framework within which we world-construct and process meaning. This is perhaps the most significant aspect of my difference with all the models Rice surveys. None of them takes time to contemplate God’s experienced triune beatitude as that about God which constitutes his being the summum bonum (the highest good and supreme value). But once the link between God’s experienced beatitude and God as the highest good and greatest value is made, one then finds meaning in suffering quite differently than any of the approaches Rice discusses. Evil does not come to mean anything. As I’ve argued often, our meaning is not the difference we make to God (i.e., the difference our suffering makes to God as he suffers as we suffer), but the difference God makes to us (i.e., the transcendent healing which God’s joy and delight provide in our suffering).

If I boil down points 1 through 4 into an eighth approach to suffering, I wouldn’t know what to call it. Perhaps:

Undiminished divine delight | Therapeutic theodicy
or
Participation in God | Theosis theodicy

I’ll end with a passage from Daniel 3 which should explain my choice of pictures attending this post, all depicting Nebuchadnezzar’s throwing the three Jewish men into the consuming fires of a furnace:

“Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego…were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace…Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, ‘Were not there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire? Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods’.” (Daniel Ch 3)

What’s the powerful imagery of this story have to do with the points I’ve here tried to express regarding suffering within the framework of God’s undiminished beatitude? If you have to ask, I’ve done a lousy job of explaining myself.

Chasing the scream

drugI had to share this short Youtube video that summarizes essential points argued by Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2015). I’ve got the book on order and am looking forward to reading it. But I’ve listened to Hari outline his points and I think he’s spot on. Having worked with/in the Recovery community the past five years, I’ve seen the healing power of healthy connections as the greatest single influence for healing in the lives of the addicted. Addictions are formed as our response to some form of despair and failure to find fulfillment in existing relationships. They’re healed through the provision of what was lacking in that respect, not through incarceration, punishment, social branding. That’s not to say drug addiction has no chemical basis of course. It’s just to prioritize things. I’ll review Hari later, but for now I thought I’d post the video.